We know that Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was an extraordinary achievement, but what subjects does he represent and what teaching do they convey?

Show Notes

We return today for a second look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As I mentioned in the last episode, it is easy to get distracted from the subject of the ceiling itself, for it is like a wonderful Italian meal in which the main course can be overshadowed by the many antipasti and exciting contorni. In the case of the ceiling, the side dishes include the technical challenges of fresco painting, the eye-opening picture of a pope who donned armor and led troops in battle, Michelangelo’s rivalry with Raphael, who was working in the Vatican Museums at the same time he was, and the recent cleaning of the frescoes, which released vibrant colors long occluded by centuries of grime. These are fascinating, delectable issues, but I want to focus on the main course, the ceiling itself.

I suspect most of us don’t turn quickly to the subjects painted on the ceiling because they do not speak as directly to us as they did to the 16th century cardinals and other clergy for whom they were mostly selected. Times have changed, and my guess is that very few of us, on entering the chapel, can look up and identify one of the frescoes as the drunkenness of Noah and another as the punishment of Haman. Even after we learn these titles from a guidebook, how many of us knows the stories that go with them? Davide and Goliath, perhaps, but what about Moses and the Brazen Serpent? Michelangelo paints forty generations of ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and spandrels, but who among us recognizes such names as Abijah, Uzziah, or Manasseh?

Schematic Drawing to show the orgnization of subjects on the Sistine Ceiling (TTaylor, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even the subjects we recognize do not speak to us as they did to their original audience. The fresco representing the creation of Adam still stands out for its beauty and implication that human beings are or once were noble creatures, but instead of purposeful creation, we today think of a Big Bang and the later evolution of the species through natural selection, where the selecting is based on the survival of the fittest, and the fittest need only be fit to survive and reproduce. No bonus survival points are given for being the most just, most noble, or most beautiful. Those who are enthusiastic about the possibilities for genetic engineering may think more of the re-creation of the species by godlike scientists than of an original creation by a god. So if we find the meaning of the fresco either obscure or obsolete, our attention is likely to turn elsewhere, for example to the amazing fact that one man designed and painted this entire ceiling, and did so in wet plaster. The side dishes may indeed be more tempting than a stale main course left over from the 16th century.

But now, if only to better recover that earlier world, let’s return to the ceiling and see what it might have been trying to say, even if its message is unfamiliar or open to doubt. Our last episode got us started. It was devoted to the overall organization of the Sistine Ceiling. We saw that Michelangelo used actual and painted architecture to divide the ceiling into approximately fifty separate paintable spaces, mostly rectangles and triangles of different sizes. Then he painted individuals, groups, or entire scenes into these separate spaces, and almost all these subjects came straight from the Old Testament. I have to say “almost” because in the group of twelve prophesiers of the coming of Christ are five Sibyls, which implies the claim that signs of his coming were not limited to the Jews.

One of Michelangelo’s twenty “ignudi,” who just might rival the nominal subjects of the ceiling in importance (The Prophet Jonah is front and center on the ceiling, just above the “Last Judgment” (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

We also noted that Michelangelo added additional figures outside and between the compartments and that these helped to reinforce the borders that divide them. I’ll call them “marginal” figures, because they at the margins of the main scenes, but they not at all marginal in size or emphasis. There are three groups of such marginal figures. There are twenty so-called ignudi along the central axis of the vault, 48 Caryatids and Atlantes that add human forms to the painted architecture, and the twenty-four bronze-colored figures just above the triangular spandrels and pendentives. All ninety-six are naked, and all but the Caryatids are male.

These are the subjects painted inside the panels:

  1. Nine panels down the central axis illustrate three important stories from Genesis.
  2. Four stories from four different books of the Old Testament fill the four pendentives or downward-sloping triangular corners of the chapel.
  3. Twelve prophesiers are framed in rectangles all around the perimeter of the nine central panels. Seven are Prophets, and five are Sibyls.
  4. Ten spandrels and fourteen lunettes contain representations of the ancestors of Christ as listed in the very beginning of the Book of Matthew.

I’ll be especially brief with the Prophesiers and the ancestors of Christ. Regarding the prophesiers, some of the figures are beautiful, like the famous Delphic Sibyl, and all show that Michelangelo could suggest character and emotion through color and form. Their names are painted as labels, but there are few other clues to help us identify who is who. It is possible the positioning of particular Prophets or Sibyls is important, but I am not able to see what difference it would make if Ezekiel were painted where and how Isiah is, and vice versa. There is perhaps surprising attention paid to representing both sexes and the world beyond the West, for including the Persian and Libyan Sibyls indicates that the good news has been spread to Africa and Asia as well as to Europe, and the addition of the Sibyls brings women into this part of the picture. In fact, with the important exception of the many marginal male nudes, women are well represented in most of the fresco. It appears that the light represented as shining on the prophesiers comes from the altar end of the chapel, which is a reminder that the artist kept the parts of the chapel in mind as he designed his fresco.

The Sibyl at Delphi, with Atlantes and Caryatids on pilasters to her left and right. (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jonah is an exception in two ways. A huge fish by his side helps to identify him, and he is located right over the altar wall, a position of honor. Why might this be? I suspect it is because Christ referred to Jonah’s experience with the whale as a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection. As he put it, [Quote] “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Jonah is an Old Testament Prophet, but when we see him right over the altar, we are supposed to see Christ as well.

As for the ancestors of Christ, their names appear on painted labels, but it again does not appear that Michelangelo tried to represent the true history of these people, not least because their history was little known. What he did was to paint family scenes, always with a baby, and usually with a mother busily tending to it, and often with a father a little less hands-on. The lunette labeled Asa, Josaphat, and Joram, for example, shows a mother trying to manage three infants, one at her breast, while the presumed father has his back turned and is busily writing away. There’s no biblical foundation for this, so Michelangelo must have been drawing on what he had seen of family life. Beyond this, some figures in these family scenes may also show the emotions expected of those who waited so long for the coming of the Messiah. At least we see a lot of solitude, pensiveness, and perhaps some despondency.

Lunette of Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Joram (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s turn now to the frescoes on the central axis of the ceiling; I’ll reserve the four pendentives and their stories until the next episode.

  1. Running down the central axis are nine panels divided into three groups. Closest to the altar are three panels devoted to God performing his most fundamental acts of creation or division, for example of light from dark. Then we get three panels on his creation of man and woman and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The third group of three is based on the story of Noah. It’s easy to find the relevant biblical passages, and they are short. I’ve posted them on the Get Ready for Rome website.

God Creates Earth on the left and Sun and Moon on the Right. The frame of the painting is made of a painted architecture  of cornices, architraves (beams), and pedestals, with four seated ignudi. The nude in the lower left leans on acorns and oak leaves, a reference to the family of Julius II, the Della Rovere. (“Rovere” means “oak” in Italian)  (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I wonder why these specific subjects are chosen and whether there is there anything suggestive or unique in the way they are treated. I don’t think there are any surviving records to answer these questions, so it’s all a matter of interpretation. I’m inclined to suggest first that the subjects of the ceiling were chosen with an eye on the subjects already treated on the side walls. These focused on the life and moral laws of Christ on the right and the life and moral laws of Moses on the left. The ceiling does not repeat either of these topics but calls attention to the creation and the divine signs that God will send a Messiah. The later addition of the Last Judgment takes up another new subject, final judgment of saints and sinners. Thus the parts of the chapel complement one another.

The creation stories of the front six ceiling panels are clearly of vast significance: Where did we and our world come from, and why are we here? Thus begins the story that unites the chapel as a whole, and if the chapel’s answer is not so warmly embraced in the scientific West, the question still resonates. I’m a bit more puzzled by the focus on Noah: the creation stories are clearly linked and are of vast significance: But why is Noah up there?

Like the creation stories, the Bible speaks of Noah in its very first pages, so the chapel ceiling begins at the beginning. Further, the story of Noah and the creation stories are connected thematically. After Adam succumbs to temptation and eats the forbidden fruit, God sentences him and his descendants to a life of hard labor and death, as is represented in the sixth panel from the front. Just a couple of pages later, we read that Noah’s father announces his birth by saying, “This [boy] shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed.” That is, Noah’s father expects his son to lift or at least limit the curse that God had uttered in response to Adam’s sinfulness.

As it turns out, Noah becomes a man of unusual righteousness.  When God sees that the increasing human population is mostly evil, He is so distraught that He decides to destroy His own creation in a worldwide flood, except for Noah and his family, and the latter will then repopulate the earth with their descendants. This will make Noah and his family like a second Adam and Eve. For a second time, the world would be populated from a single source, this time, hopefully, with better results. It may be a further link that in making His covenant or contract with Noah and his family, God declares that he had created man in his own image, a direct reference to the creation story of a few panels earlier.

A detail from the the flood sent by God. The ark is in the background. The figures in the forground will drown in the rising waters. (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Those of us not well-schooled in the Bible are challenged when we walk into a room painted with stories taken from this long-influential book. A second challenge is that the stories may not be taken directly or exclusively from the Bible, for the Catholic tradition emphasizes the need for authoritative interpreters of the Bible, such as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. And there were also other interpreters who came later and won a following for themselves, such as Joachim of Fiore.  My point is that a full reading of the ceiling’s references cannot stop at the Bible. Here is a simple example regarding the story of Noah, and I’ll add a few other examples later.

Prior to showing up in Michelangelo’s frescoes, Noah had been discussed in numerous sermons and theological treatises, and some of these would have been familiar to the gatherings of cardinals and churchmen that used the chapel. For example, St. Augustine made an extensive comparison between Noah’s ark and the Church, and he had a little help from the New Testament letter of First Peter in doing so. Both Peter and Augustine observe that the ark carried its occupants to salvation and that it saved them by water, which implies baptism, and by wood, which refers to the cross (1 Peter 3: 20-22).[1] After other points of comparison, Augustine concludes that if the ark is the Church, Noah, who caused the ark to be built, is a prefiguration of Christ. As with Jonah, another Old Testament character is interpreted as an anticipation of Christ.

I can summarize the above by asking two groups of questions raised by the chapel ceiling:

1) What is important about the creation stories in Genesis and about the story of Noah? Did a god choose to bring us and our world into being? Did He give us a moral purpose and rules by which to live? If so, how well did His creation conform to his hopes or expectations? If not, what is our purpose, and what is our nature? Are we sinful creatures, as the God of Genesis came to think when he destroyed most of his own creation? What do the main features of the world we live in suggest about us?

2) What did the great Catholic theologians think was important about the stories told on the Sistine Ceiling? Do they help us better understand Michelangelo’s frescoes? In this case, I’ll suggest a partial answer: they would have seen some of the Old Testament figures in the chapel as referring prophetically to the New Testament. Christ himself likens his experience between death and resurrection to Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale; and if Saints Peter and Augustine thought of the ark as the Church, surely others did so as well.

Another question to ask while looking at the great frescoes on the ceiling is whether Michelangelo might have added his own twist to any of the stories he tells. I agree with the experts that Michelangelo did not have carte blanche to paint whatever he wanted, but I doubt the theological authorities specified each and every detail in his work. Since in his “Last Judgment” of twenty-five years later, he did show one of his personal enemies with a snake biting his genitals,[2] we might expect a little joke or two somewhere in the ceiling, but I’m wondering more about his ideas than about his possible jokes.

Here is a list of a few minor observations on the central panels related to this question.

In Genesis, the story of the sinful eating of the forbidden fruit has the serpent tempting Eve, and Eve tempting Adam. It is she who hands him the fruit. In Michelangelo’s fresco, however, Adam bypasses Eve and goes for the fruit on his own. Thus, Michelangelo’s version emphasizes Adam’s own responsibility, and makes it harder for him or us to blame Eve.

The Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve. The Temptation is to the left; the Fall, which seems to have aged them and robbed them of their beauty, is to the right. (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo makes the creation of Eve the central panel of his ceiling. I wonder if he did this as a mark of honor. That the chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to her Assumption into heaven, body and soul, might add a reason to honor the first woman.

It seems to me that the posture of Noah in the very last panel is similar to that of Adam when he is about to be created. Adam is not yet tainted by original sin, but Noah surely is. In fact, in this last fresco of Noah, he is dead drunk. Is there a reason Michelangelo would give the same posture to the young, athletic, immaculate Adam and to an old, drunken Noah? Might their similar postures lead us to doubt that the hope implied by Adam’s beauty was fulfilled in Noah’s sad state?

The attractive woman under God’s left arm as he reaches out to create Adam is generally taken to be the Virgin Mary. If this is correct, as I suspect, we have another example of a Christian future being read back into the Old Testament.

God with Eve creates Adam. Is he perhaps surrounded by the cross section of a human brain? (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the same panel, God appears in the center of a reddish drapery. Back in 1990, a physician named Frank Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association arguing that Michelangelo’s imagery was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section, and to my unpracticed eye, it seems plausible. Michelangelo started studying and sketching the body parts of cadavers when he was fifteen years old, so it seems he would have seen examples of actual human brains. The next question would be what this likeness would mean. Would it suggest that God’s thinking is the same as ours? Would this then add dignity to our human intelligence, or suggest disappointment that God could do no better?

Let me conclude today by posing what I take to be the central question: What is the relationship between the marginal figures and the ones inside the architectural frames? We have around fifty framed compartments with subjects based on the Old Testament, and then we have close to one hundred nudes all around them, unlinked to any story, biblical or otherwise. Are they mere decoration, or do they imply a teaching or point of view of their own? Like the painted architecture itself, with its marble architraves and pilasters, they look classical. The large and beautiful ignudi look especially like Greek sculptures and remind us that the beautiful Hellenistic statue of Laocoön was unearthed in Michelangelo’s presence and to his excitement on January 14, 1506, two years before he began painting the chapel. Were these classical nudes merely marginal in Michelangelo’s mind, or did he want them to convey some part of a classical and non-Biblical point of view?

Michelangelo, section of the Sistine Ceiling. Note the prominence of the architectural divisions and of the nudes sitting on them or carved into them. (Michelangelo, Public Domain Wikimedia)

Rather than suggest an answer, I’ll just say I think it’s a crucial question for Dante too. As Michelangelo painted a great Christian chapel, Dante wrote the great Christian epic, but he also chose the pagan Virgil to be his guide, at least to the doors of Paradise, and he gave classical thinkers an honored place in his “first circle.” Did he thereby alter or even threaten the traditional, medieval Christian understanding of human excellence, God’s law, and divine punishment?

I won’t be able to answer this question in the next episode either, but we will return to it as we discuss the four pendentives of the Chapel.


[2] Biagio de Cesena.

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